Report says autonomous tech could lead to lower-paying jobs

A new report predicts autonomous technology could lead to the loss of about 300,000 trucking jobs, but its author said the bigger concern is that many of the new positions created could offer lower pay and poor working conditions.

The trucking industry will actually likely add more new jobs in positions like logistics and new driving jobs, said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the report’s author. But he said it’s possible many of the new jobs, many of which might be related to growth in ecommerce, will be for independent contractors with lower wages. It’s important to think now about what those jobs might look like and develop public policies that ensure workers can earn good wages once the technology eventually takes off, he said.

Ohio has about 68,500 truck drivers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency didn’t have data for Clark or Champaign counties.

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“The big concern really is not that we’re going to run out of jobs for truckers, but it’s the quality of those jobs” Viscarelli said.

While Viscelli noted some reports have predicted as many as 2.1 million jobs could eventually be lost due to automation, he said that also includes segments like local pickup and delivery jobs that are unlikely to be replaced by technology. He predicted the most at-risk jobs will be long distance drivers representing about 294,000 workers.

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Kevin Burch, president and partner of Jet Express in Dayton, said truck drivers shouldn’t be too concerned, arguing there are still plenty of hurdles preventing widespread use. Burch, immediate past chairman of the American Trucking Association, said it could be decades before the industry can reliably operate without a driver in most trucks. He predicted most students in the industry now won’t have to be concerned during their career.

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“There are so many things they have to figure out. The autonomous truck is probably 25 years out,” Burch predicted.

Vicelli’s report agreed widespread use of fully autonomous technology is likely at least two decades away, but argued policy makers should be thinking now about what jobs in the industry might look like. It pointed out many of the long-haul jobs most at risk typically offer the best pay and benefits, and said there’s concern many of the new jobs will potentially pay far less.

“Rather than the “suddenly jobless” scenario that has been suggested, however, autonomous trucks, e-commerce, and economic growth are together poised to create many new trucking jobs,” the report said. “Twenty-five years from now there will likely be many more jobs moving goods than there are today. The question is whether or not most of those jobs are going to be good jobs, with healthy working conditions and living wages.”

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In Springfield, Clark State Community College has about 20 students enrolled in its Commercial Driver’s License program and is seeing an increase in enrollment as demand for drivers has spiked.

Most local driving positions start on second or third shift, but drivers can earn between $1,000 to $1,250 per week in a local position now, said Duane Hodge, director of the Clark State Commercial Transportation Training Center.

“Clark State added a weekend CDL course option and demand is stretching our capacity,” Hodge said. “The small investment in time and money make it a highly sought after career that is currently still viable and well-paid. Industries change and the CDL industry welcomes any changes that add to the demand for local jobs. Clark State will be here to meet those needs.”

Viscelli’s report argued self-driving trucks will soon be able to operate on highways, although it will take significantly longer before the trucks can operate on crowded, less predictable local streets with pedestrians. And humans will still be needed to perform many tasks including fueling, inspections and paperwork. The most likely scenario, according to the report, would involve human drivers bringing trailers from warehouses to autonomous truck ports near major highways.

An autonomous truck would haul products over long stretches of highway and a human driver would recover the shipment and take it to its final destination. The report also reviewed several other possible scenarios including platooning, in which several autonomous trucks would closely follow a lead truck with a human driver.

Many of the solutions being proposed now for workers whose jobs are replaced by technology included retraining for new careers, Viscelli said. But the trucking industry now is largely dominated by older men without high school degrees, many of whom live in rural areas.

“All of that makes them much harder to retrain for comparable jobs,” Viscelli said. “Everyone wants to look at retraining as a silver bullet.”

Instead, he argued retraining needs to be one component that can be combined with other policies.

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